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Team 'building the right way'

So says commissioner Gary Bettman, who also says the Lightning now has the right people in charge.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


TAMPA -- Commissioner Gary Bettman understands the fine line the Lightning and its ownership are walking.

The team wants to build for the future while convincing its fans, who have watched another disappointing season for the most part, to take another look next season.

Bettman's message to the Lightning: Stay the course.

"This is a franchise that is building the right way," he said before Tuesday night's 5-4 overtime loss to the Oilers at the Ice Palace. "A lot of people think you do it by knee-jerk reactions. But teams that are truly successful in the long haul do it from the foundation up.

"That way it doesn't give you false hope or the peaks and valleys that the fans have to tolerate."

Bill Davidson, who owns Palace Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Lightning, and Palace Sports president Tom Wilson came in from Detroit for the game and acknowledged the fans have tolerated much. Both said better days are ahead.

Davidson said the team will be better conditioned.

"Here, it's legs, legs, legs," Davidson said, "and we'll have better legs next year."

Wilson indicated that ownership will be more willing to increase payroll next season because of the improvements this season.

"It's a change in opportunity, an evolution," Wilson said. "Faced with the same decisions this summer that you had last summer, you might be more inclined to do it now. And Rick (Dudley, general manager) might be more inclined to recommend it."

Davidson said he would have to wait to see if offers are made this summer for restricted free agent Vinny Lecavalier before commenting on whether he would match them.

Either way, the payroll is poised to take a hefty hike if goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is signed. Wilson said the team has made what it considers a "fair" offer.

"I would expect dramatic improvement in the team, assuming Khabibulin gets signed," Wilson said.

Bettman likes to hear that. The commissioner wouldn't go as far to say he was worried about the franchise.

"It's a good sports town," he said.

He explained the rush he got from attending the Lightning's 5-4 overtime playoff victory over the Flyers in 1996 in front of 25,945 at Tropicana Field, then called the ThunderDome.

"I thought, "This is why we belong in Tampa Bay,' " Bettman said. "It took a lot of hard work to mess that up. But the right guys are going to fix this. Bill Davidson, Tom Wilson, (team president) Ron Campbell, they know what to do.

"I sleep better at night when I think of this franchise because Bill Davidson is running it."

But for how long?

Davidson would not give an answer because he said no one in business can predict the future.

"We're committed," he said. "We're here. But you can't put a time on it."

NBA UPDATE: Asked if he would like to have an NBA team play at the Ice Palace, for which Palace Sports & Entertainment holds the lease, Davidson said, "The answer is always yes. But is it going to happen? No. We have our hands full with what we're doing."

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